Today’s post is written by science reference librarian and gardener, Alison Kelly.
With the forsythia in bloom once again it seems like a good time to reconsider Beatrix Farrand and some of the other women who have played an important role in horticulture. Farrand, who was the only woman founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, (though she herself preferred to be called a landscape gardener), was a professional designer of gardens across the country. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to visit Dumbarton Oaks gardens, in Washington, then you’ve enjoyed what is probably her best known work.
If you’re in need of a break from raking, planting and mulching, you may want to investigate the Science Reference Guide to Women in Horticulture, which makes an attempt to list books by and about notable women in that field. Not surprisingly, most of the horticultural women in this guide were writers as well as horticulturists, and their works range in tone from studious to conversational. Just dipping into any of these women’s works is always interesting.
There are some early best-sellers in this list. Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and her German Garden, more fiction than how-to manual, became an instant hit when it was published in 1898. Elizabeth chafes against domestic routine and her husband is referred to as “The Man of Wrath,” but this book also captures the author’s love of the garden in all seasons.
At about the same time, Maria Theresa Earle penned her Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, reprinted 11 times in the first year of its publication. This charming book is aptly named, with Earle’s musings on roses and alliums and weeds (“Weeding! What it means to us all!”), combined with thoughts on the independence of women and advice on washing babies in rain-water. Both Earle and her more well-known contemporary, Gertrude Jekyll had an interest in the Women’s Suffrage movement, and they were both patrons of The College for Lady Gardeners at Glynde, which helped to open up professional training for gardening and horticultural careers to women. Gertrude Jekyll, who embodies the concept of the gardener as artist, published her first book, Wood and Garden, in 1899, and went on to write many more books and articles, while creating over 400 gardens in the UK, Europe and America. She continues to be read today.
Margery Fish, who became one of England’s foremost gardening writers in the 1950s, came to gardening after a long career in journalism, but her book We Made a Garden was influential in leading gardeners to combine old-fashioned cottage flowers and contemporary plants in an informal manner. The Dry Garden, The Damp Garden and The Gravel Garden are just some of the books by Beth Chatto, who was awarded the Garden Writers Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. Faced with an overgrown wasteland of gravel and boggy soil in Colchester, England, Chatto applied ecological principles to create her garden, carefully matching plants with their environment.
The legendary Rosemary Verey, whose decorative vegetable garden was a tapestry of cabbages, lettuces, strawberries, hop vines and espaliered fruit trees, wrote more than a dozen gardening books, including the inspirational The Garden in Winter. Even if you think you never want to see the season again, this book will make you want to plan a winter garden, so that next year you will be cheered by golden witch hazel, tall dried grasses, and red berries against the snow.
Women horticulturists of any time period tend to be passionate about gardening and quite often very opinionated! One of my perennial favorites is Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts: a Writer in the Garden, first published in 1981. Perenyi, who died last year at the age of 91, was another gardener with strong opinions. Her garden, in contrast to the tasteful displays of her Connecticut neighbors, was filled with vibrant colors and dinner plate dahlias “not the discreet little singles either…to me they are sumptuous, not vulgar, and I love their colors, their willingness to bloom until the frost kills them and, yes, their assertiveness.”